Located in the in the center of the remote Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture, in the northern Tōhoku region of northern Japan, is the volcanic mountain called Mt. Osore, or in Japanese Osore-zan, which translates to “Fear Mountain” or “Dread Mountain. The area is stunningly beautiful, but also in many ways forbidding, and in many ways it earns it name. Mt. Osore is one of a series of eight volcanoes that ring the area, and indeed the landscape in general here is highly volcanic, permeated by the smell of sulfur that spews eternally from numerous fumarole gas vent,s and the home of a lifeless poisonous caldera lake called Lake Usori, its waters a sinister yellow and acidic enough to eat away at metal. This is a blasted, forsaken land, a barren moonscape of a place, full of jagged charred and twisted rocks and deadly fumes, forbidding to life, yet it is also a land of ethereal, sometimes surreal beauty, and it is perhaps this strange marriage of beauty and dangerous menace that has caused Mt. Osore to become the center of numerous legends and stories of magic and the supernatural.
Mt. Osore has long been surrounded by various myths and legends, beginning with its very discovery. The legends state that a Buddist monk called Ennin had a ghostly vision while in China, in which a powerful spirit told him to go to Japan and head east. He was told that he would come to an area mirroring the Buddhist cosmology, surrounded by eight mountains and holding one mountain that was particularly sacred, the place that would eventually be Mt. Osore. The monk apparently wandered for over a month before finding what he was looking for, after which he carved the first Bodhisattva Jizo here and made it a center for Buddhism in Japan.
After that it was long said that this desolate and unforgiving place was a gateway to the Buddhist underworld, largely because the warped landscape is laid out very much how the Japanese early Buddhists envisioned the land of the dead. The area of Mt. Osore has eight surrounding peaks symbolic of the eight petals of the lotus, just as in the afterlife, and it is also intersected by a dead river that is called the Sai-no-Kawara, meaning “the dry riverbed of the netherworld.” According to the lore, this dry river must be crossed by all dead souls on their way to afterlife, and some of them are never able to cross, sending them into a kind of limbo. This was said to be especially true of children who died before their parents, as since they are unable to repay their parents for having giving birth to them they must remain there at the river for eternity, in a sort of realm between life and death. It is said that these souls build cairns of stone in a bid to climb out, yet these are smashed by demons that constantly torment them. In order to protect these children, statues of the Buddhist protector of children, the Bodhisattva Jizo, are set up all around this riverbed, left by grieving parents or visitors, who also will build up stone cairns in an effort to help the souls of these lost children escape and are known to place various gifts for the kids as well.
Mt. Osore is also peppered by numerous vents that belch forth heat and sulfur and are said in lore to be actual doorways down to different hells, and another legend is that of a bridge that the dead must cross. This bridge crosses over the Sanzu River, said to be a river the dead must cross to reach the underworld, similar to the legend of the River Styx. To the eyes of the living it looks to be just a simple and small, arched, vermilion bridge, but to the souls of the dead it is a formidable obstacle to be crossed, with those have led a peaceful, virtuous life able to get over rather smoothly, while those who are less pure have more difficulty and may even find it impassable, with the most wretched souls said to not even be able to see the bridge at all. It is this bridge which leads to a mysterious place located right within the caldera of Mt. Osore. Here on the other side of the bridge is a Sōtō Zen Buddhist temple called Bodai-ji, which has operated here in some capacity since 862 AD. The temple known for quite a few mysteries. On the premises is a collection of four hot spring baths that are said to be able to cure all manner of illness and physical ailments, making them a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists. There is also a 2-meter-tall statue of Bodhisattva Jizo, at the temple, which according to legend will come to life at night and prowl the grounds looking to banish any demons that might be lurking about and to try and free any souls unable to cross the river.
Bodai-ji is perhaps most well-known for a small cabal of mediums called itako, who are mystic individuals specially trained from a young age to speak with the spirit world. The itako are all women, and traditionally were always blind and put through extensive spiritual cleansing rituals and training, although in modern times they are not all blind. The itako training is so intense, their ascetic practices so severe and the life so Spartan, that very few choose to follow this ancient path, and so there are fewer than 20 of these mediums in all of Japan, many of them based at Bodai-ji. These itako are thought to have the power to break through into the spiritual world and channel the dead, often in the voices and with the mannerisms of the deceased, and so they are sought out by people desperate to talk with their lost loved ones. Twice a year, in the summer and autumn, there is a spiritual medium festival at the temple called the “Itako Taisai,” to which itako from all of the country converge to channel the dead and carry out various rituals. The festival is extremely popular, and draws in droves of visitors, many of them grieving friends and family who wish to reach out to their dead.
Mt. Osore is not all about death and doom and gloom, as on the bright side there is a place here that is said to be Buddhism’s heaven or paradise on Earth, said to be located across the poisonous Lake Usori from a white sand beach on its shore called Gokuraku beach. In the summer, many pilgrims and visitors make their way to this forlorn beach in order to pray towards the land of paradise on the far shore and leave various gifts and offerings for the dead. In all it is a very colorful history of myth and mystery, and is a land that will probably never be fully understood, forever existing in a sense in a sort of unique parallel domain of its own.
by Brent Swancer